Island Cabinet Clearance
Anytime I build and install an island with less than 42" clearance, I have the customer sign an approval clause, because most of them do complain.
I think your customer is wishing for the impossible - it just isn't going to happen. I also think about 42 inches is the minimum clearance I would use on any side of an island, building code and ADA notwithstanding. Even 42 inches is a little tight for someone bending over to get something out of an oven or dishwasher. And why would you want to build something unusable even if the customer "signs off" on it? Using the knowledge we've gained as cabinet builders over the years to help customers design is one of the things we can offer.
I like the above response. My cabinet beginnings were as an installer. I'm still installing for other shops while I'm getting my shop up to full speed. Too often, I hear from designers that "that is what the customer wants," even if it doesn't work. Sometimes they expect me to ignore code issues because "that is what the customer wants." I believe that a good designer/cabinet man will educate the customer so that bad ideas are thrown out and great ones implemented.
36" is absolute minimum. A good work-around that I have used in similar situations is to put the island on concealed or decorative wheels.
By code, you need 36" minimum walkthrough and 42" minimum where an oven door is used. We do 42" minimum walkway and 48" when there is an oven door whenever possible. Also, you need to account for refrigerators with over/under configurations. You want minimum 42" on a side where they have an over/under fridge.
I usually reference the NKBA design guidelines:
Kitchen Planning Guideline 8 - Traffic Clearance at Seating
In a seating area where no traffic passes behind a seated diner, allow 32" of clearance from the counter/table edge to any wall or other obstruction behind the seating area.
a. If traffic passes behind the seated diner, allow at least 36" to edge past.
b. If traffic passes behind the seated diner, allow at least 44" to walk past.
If the client wants something that you believe is too tight, try setting up a couple of boxes at various openings so the client can better visualize the space. Then, try to get two people to pass through the space at the same time. I vote for 42" clearance.
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